Monday, 17 September 2012

Ming the Merciless by Victoria Anderson

Oh, she hated the room, every square inch of it. Well, the whole fucking house for that matter. In the living room a large gold overhead fan sprouted forth from a ceiling rose adrift in a sea of artex spirals. The wallpaper was both striped and floral, and fought unceasingly against a swirling seasicky carpet.
‘A coupla potsa paint’ (they said), ‘it’ll only take a coupla days’ (they said. ‘Course,’ (they then said), ‘thing about decorating is, it’s neverending’. Indeed. Steaming, scraping, sanding, stripping, she (her name was Rue) inhaled more sawdust than a hoover in a log cemetery. And on the day she lay down her stippling brush for the last time, she gazed up at the walls and said:
‘It is done.’
And immediately after:
‘I hate it.’

The walls were painted a pale shimmery turquoise.
‘But nice,’ she said, to anyone who would listen, ‘not like a doctor’s waiting room.’ She was wrong, of course, because that’s exactly what it was like. A doctor’s waiting room. Exchange the flu and chlamydia posters for some about molars and regular flossing, it could be a dentist’s; swop those for some on canine parvovirus and gastro-intestinal nematodes, it could be a vet’s and so yes, in a way it was flexible, even adaptable but oh! it was clinical.
Ah! She hated it, reviled it, this, this NHS purgatory with its cool, cool in a bad way, cool in a lukewarm just this side of tepid and going sour way, this sterile colour she’d loved so much she hadn’t just bought a coupla potsa paint in it but retiled (badly) the fireplace in it, made – made, mind you – curtains in it – badly - and even then hadn’t had enough resources for the vision of it. Witness: the artex still bubbling forth its grotesque cooling system even as 100mph winds buffeted the little house’s exterior and mocked it, mocked it, mocked it.
Neither was the situation in the remainder of the house substantially improved. Actually, it was worse. Her decorating fervour – like so many of her fervours – had all the constancy of the moon, if you can imagine a moon that is full just once a year and spends the other 364 days wondering whether or not it’s worth coming out at all. This being so, her bedroom (womblike in cerise; it could squeeze the life out of you) was still waiting for the fuzzy pink carpet to be ripped up and replaced with shiny, sanded boards, the ceiling still wore vitiligous patches of white while it awaited a second coat of ‘Bengal Rose’, and the spare room? Well, we’d better not go there and, to be fair, Rue very rarely did.
Suffice it to say, there was more likelihood of the universe ceasing to expand so that the passage of time is reversed, thereby returning spilt coffee to its cup and Isaac Newton’s apple to its tree than of Rue actually picking up her steam-stripper and completing the job in hand. She sighed and glanced up at the clock: five to eight. She kicked over some debris (two newspapers, a carrier bag) and found her shoes under a Dulux paint chart.  
Ming,’ said a small voice at her feet. She looked down. It was the cat.

‘Minty,’ she said, ‘is iddl widdums hungy? Poor iddl puss. Less get kit-e-kat.’ For such was her accustomed manner of address.
Ming,’ said the cat, whose belly nearly touched the floor. Its little pink anus squinted up at her as she followed it to the kitchen; she dolloped half a can of chicken and turkey flavoured animal remains (in gravy) into a blue plastic dish.
‘Izzat nice, hmm? Yummy puss puss,’ said Rue; but the cat was eating, and did not reply.

At the bus stop she tried not to watch the naked old woman cleaning her bathroom window. Rue was guaranteed this performance at least once a week: the glass was of the frosted-flowered variety. Not frosted-flowered enough. Now and again the naked old woman pulled the peach-and-orange thick-striped not-cotton curtains in front of breasts which mimicked two bowling balls in sausage skins that began at her armpits and ended somewhere near the windowsill. What she couldn’t fathom was why no-one else at the bus stop ever seemed to share the grim spectacle. Today there was the woman with the pushchair and at least fourteen children, a middle-aged businessman who looked like he should really be in a car, and a few other members of the faceless proletariat chinking their change and shifting from foot to foot like sick desert lizards. None of them looked up. None of them saw the naked old woman cleaning her bathroom window. But what Rue’s mutinous gaze tried most to avoid was the way the white-haloed head would press itself close to the frosted-flowers so that the black, hollowed-out eyes met her own –
‘You gettin on this one, love?’
The bus! Thank Christ.
Rue exchanged her coins for a ticket and squeezed into a window seat – regretting immediately as she did so for she saw the peach-and-orange swish-swish-swish from the corner of her eye.
As the bus rumbled away, Rue pondered the nature of old women. They’re here, all around me, she thought, glancing furtively about the bus and its little old ladies wrapped up in tweedy coats and padded jackets, thin brown-tighted legs disappearing into fur-lined boots, all of it topped off with the obligatory short perm (white through to sand) and headgear (bobble hat, turban hat, clear plastic polka-dotted triangle that ties under the chin hat), and all of them reeking of pensions, bingo, sprouts, lottery tickets and waste, sacrifice, opportunities untaken, lives effaced as memories die one-by-one in the obituaries, quietly, and after a long illness. But there was no place in this assessment for naked old women who swing their breasts in upstairs windows and do – who knows what else? – in the rest of the house. And here Rue’s brain folded in on itself, for there were possibilities pricking the edges of her conscious imagination that ought never to be disinterred.
Pink. She should have done the walls pink. Pink is nice. Pink is good. Light pink. Pink is not sterile. Pink is not a vet’s surgery. A coupla potsa paint, she could get it done in a coupla days. Oh, but then the sofa… but she could get rid of that sofa. She could get that Ikea one, the white leather one… oh god, she could be happy if she had that white leather sofa. And pink walls…
She remembered she had a copy – didn’t she always? - of Inside Deco Magazine in her bag. Like a soppy-jawed kid in a puppy shop she gazed at the big shiny pictures and tiny gobbets of prose: ‘Forget minimalism; colour is IN’, and ‘The new opulence. Walls in Cranberry Corpuscles matt emulsion. Woodwork in Ever Ebony satinwood.’ And then the features: ‘When Matt and Emma bought their three storey Victorian house it was all woodchip and artex. “It was a total nightmare,” explains Emma, over a cup of Lapsang Souchong; “and when we finally got the woodchip off half the wall came with it!” But it’s hard to imagine that this house was ever less than palacial. The antique French armoire in the hall was picked up in a Parisian flea-market. “It was a steal,” Matt cuts in, “but we had one hell of a job getting it back on the top of a Polo!”’
Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Day’s Home Shopping was a strange place. No. It really was. And to be fair it was probably the strangeness of its employees rather than strangeness built like asbestos into the masonry that was the cause, but then it was impossible to conclude whether or not all of these strange employees were innately peculiar or, given their working conditions, had strangeness thrust upon them.
Inside the central offices of Day’s catalogue was not unlike, say, Narnia in so much as hours could be perceived to have passed when in fact only sixteen seconds of real time had elapsed. Windows were sealed behind venetian blinds that never opened. Natural light was as distant a memory as fresh air and face to face dialogue; employees were encased singly within fibreboard booths that housed a desk, computer, and a small pile of weekly magazines wherein, between calls, the employee could discover ‘How a spiral perm nearly cost me my LIFE’ and ‘How breastfeeding nearly KILLED my baby’. Et cetera.
Each employee was plugged into a headset, thereby eliminating the need to pick up the handset (which didn’t exist anyway). Inside the headset the employee would hear a single telephonic ring. The employee was then preprogrammed to say, ‘Hello Day’s home shopping (employee’s name here) speaking can I take your customer reference number?’ and would glance over ‘I lost my LEG in a supermarket CAR PARK’ while the customer would um and ah and rustle about looking for aforementioned reference number.
Only when these formalities were complete could the real business get underway: that is, the solemn purchase of shoes, bedsheets, and Black & Decker Workmates.
Rue signed herself in at 8.55 and found a vacant fibreboard booth. Since getting off the bus she had felt slightly queasy; not so much a knot as a loose tangle had formed in her gut at some stage during the morning, and now this hairball felt ready to take a vertical excursion through her alimentary canal (‘alimentary, my dear Watson’). She settled down with a cup of VENDAMAX tea and Inside Deco, and plugged herself in. It was 9am.
‘Hello Day’s Home Shopping Rue speaking can I take your customer reference number?’
‘Oh,’ a woman’s voice. ‘Yes. Hang on-’ Surround yourself with sheer colour. Raspberry and aqua is an unexpected combination; retro pieces add a touch of glamour. Scour bric-a-brac and vintage stores for-
‘Here we are. 59466378/884.’ – authentic finds.
‘Mrs Pincer? Can you confirm the address for me please?’
‘Oh, yes, it’s…’ Create your own opium den for turn of the century decadence. Walls in deep aubergine are complemented by Chinese silks in deep reds and purples. Give wooden furniture an overhaul with black lacquer and
‘Thankyou Mrs Pincer, can I take your first catalogue number please?’ – gold paint. Incense adds the final –
‘Well, it’s just the one thing,’ – touch. ‘I want one of them Cabbage Patch Dolls for my daughter.’,
‘Have you got the catalogue number?’
‘Oh, yes, it’s…’ Craig and Fiona have traveled all over the world; something which becomes clear on entering their Glasgow apartment. The hall is lined with African fetish dolls –
‘…but the thing is she really wants a blonde one.’
– and tribal pieces.
‘Mrs Pincer, I’m afraid there’s no way to know what colour hair your doll will have.’
‘But can’t you ask for a blonde one?’
‘I’m afraid all I can do is key in the number and submit that order. I can’t request a particular colour.’ “We picked these up mostly in the Gambia,” explains Craig, over a mug of Fairtrade coffee; “at first it was, like, totally weird being the only white people in a sea of black faces…”
‘Oh.’ ‘But can you not put some kind of note on the order?’
‘Mrs Pincer, there is literally no way for me to do that, I’m sorry. The computer won’t accept it.’
‘Oh dear…’ “… but the people out there are so friendly, they really warmed to us.” Fiona agrees. In the living room, she says, she wanted to emulate –
‘Would you like me to put the order through for you anyway?’ – a truly ethnic style. She chose an earth palette, with lots of rusts and chocolates…
‘Oh, uh… yes, yes, go on, she’ll have to lump it. Let’s hope she doesn’t get a black one, eh? Oh, we’re not supposed to say things like that any more, are we…’ Mrs Pincer chortled merrily at her last remark.
‘I’m black actually Mrs Pincer.’
‘Oh.’ A strangled noise. Rusts and chocolates.
‘Thankyou for shopping with us Mrs Pincer. Goodbye now,’ and Mrs Pincer was thus evaporated as Rue peeled off her headset and lurched towards the ladies, where she regurgitated two slices of toast and some crunchy nut cornflakes (breakfast) and what looked like some of the Special Vegetable Mix and Peshwari Naan she’d had delivered the previous night.

‘You alright, lovey?’ said one of the strange employees, peering into the cubicle with wide blue glassy eyes as Rue wiped semi-digested Naan off the looseat. 
Of course, no employer with any regard for his carpets will deny their vomiting employee the rest of the day off, so Rue was packed off home in a taxi (she paid for it), Inside Deco safely back in her bag for, as we all know, one should never read in a car, particularly if one prefers not to vomit.
Once at home, she flinched only briefly at the walls, and boiled the kettle for tea. Lady Grey. With a dash of milk. Terribly English. This done, she flicked on the radio – Woman’s Hour was just beginning a comprehensive history of the sanitary towel – and lay back on the sofa, which, when one’s eyes were closed, could almost be white leather, were it not for the fact that it felt an awful lot like grey dralon. Ah, but she would be happy if she had that white leather sofa. And pink walls… think of the visitors she’d have, the social life she’d generate as anyone who was anyone came to sit on her fine, white leather sofa and admire her pink walls along with the Damien Hirsts she’d picked up at a Belgian car boot sale.
‘Gosh, Rue,’ they would say, ‘it’s a wonder your house hasn’t been in Inside Deco. With this sofa…’
‘And these walls…’
‘And these can’t be Damien Hirsts…’
‘But would you believe I picked them up at a Belgian car boot sale? Had a hell of a job getting them back on a P&O ferry…’
Ming,’ said a small voice to the right of her. Rue opened her eyes to see the cat sitting in the middle of the floor. Well, not sitting, exactly. More like –
‘Oh, Minty,’ she said, as the cat flexed its haunches and pumped a smooth brown turd onto the wooden floor.
‘Oh, Minty,’ she said again, and the cat watched her through the slits in its big yellow eyes.
Ming,’ said the cat.  

About the author: Victoria Anderson has been writing fiction for many years, although it has largely remained unseen. Bred in Wales with a suitably mixed heritage (Welsh, Irish, Scottish, Jamaican), she trained in Fine Art and Cultural Studies and was awarded her PhD from Leeds University in 2006. 
She has taught at Goldsmiths College and Kingston University in London. In 2009 she published a book (‘Bluebeard’s Legacy’) with well-known art historian Griselda Pollock, and has published articles in academic journals. She has written two (thus far) unpublished novels, but is signed to the Sayle Literary Agency in Cambridge UK and was recently shortlisted in the Hay House Visions Novel Competition. 
After spending many years on defunct computer files her short fiction old and new is slowly being sent out. Victoria currently lives in Bristol with her son and teenage cats. She has a brand new blog at

Photo Credit:  
Paintbrushes on wall by Degilbo on Flickr creative commons.
STOP by Robert S. Digby via Flickr Creative Commons